What Tutorials Don’t Say About Refinishing Wood Floors

I’m happy AND angry.

– Ralph Wiggum

The next step in the upstairs remodel was refinishing the floors. Kevin previously wove salvaged flooring into the existing boards, so now we have actual flooring throughout the upstairs. We decided to do the work one room at a time — moving all the furniture to one side and then the other. We’ve just finished the bedroom:

Before (detail)


After (looks fine if you don’t look too closely)

This one room was a hard-won battle, and we learned a lot that we’ll apply to the next room.

Lesson 1: Floor Edgers are Nasty

A floor edger sander is a heavy, violent tool designed to sand along the walls while you use all your willpower to muscle it into position.

Fortunately, most of the floor involves a friendly orbital sander.

Having used an edger now, I question its utility. First of all, using a floor edger is like wrestling a rabid badger on steroids.

Like this, only rabid and with sandpaper on its bottom.

Second, edgers dig in (also like badgers) and leave serious swirl marks on the floor that must be hand-sanded out. Even pros comment that edger swirl is pretty much to be expected, although you can reduce its extent.

On the next room, I’m inclined (against professional advice) to get as close as possible to the edge with the big sander, and then hand sand the edges and corners, using the same grit progression. You have to get the corners by hand (or with a detail sander) anyway, so…I’m having trouble seeing the benefit.

Again, though, professionals say to use them.

Lesson 2: We Are Mammals.

No matter how lustrous and healthy your mammalian hair is, it’s going to fall out while you are applying polyurethane to your wood floor. And no matter how good your eyesight, you’re not going to see that hair in the finish until everything’s dry. In short, this is not a good hatless or nude activity.

Enjoy your hair elsewhere.

Completely cover your hair and remove all pet hair from your clothes before entering the Flooring Zone. And use a really good paint brush for cutting in to avoid bristle loss.

Lesson 3: No Going Back

It took a couple of weeks after sanding to be able to do the finish — we were waiting for the humidity to go down a few points. It’s been cold and rainy, and cold raininess slows down dry and cure. (We used Duraseal satin, by the way, which is a nice product.)

Once it got relatively warm, I had the bedroom window open to promote drying. It was a lovely, warm day, but there was a sudden cloudburst. To prevent the floor from getting wet, I tiptoed to the window to close it. I swabbed the footprints as I backed up, but I missed many of them. I thought I had just barely touched the floor, but the footprints proved otherwise.

If you wander across the wet finish, you will be forced to sand and re-poly the area in a semi-effective way that I would not recommend, and therefore will not even describe. Figure out what you want to do with the window ahead of time.

Lesson 4: “Hardwood” is Not a Misnomer.

We spoke with several knowledgeable people about refinishing this particular floor, and we got a lot of this:

The issue? Ninety-year-old maple and associated finishes are crazy hard and weirdly resistant to mechanical abrasion. If we had it to do over, knowing what we know now, we probably would have hired this out (or at least that would be my vote). But since we’ve started down this road, we’re going to finish the reading room as well. We’re adding a few steps to the process, though:

  1. Chemical stripper to lift most of the old finish instead of sanding through it.
  2. Skipping the edger.
  3. Shaving ourselves entirely bald.

I’m pleased that this room is done, and I know that the flaws that I see will not be noticeable, but I’m still annoyed about them. Of all the projects we’ve done, this was really one of my least favorite to do.

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